Friday, May 31, 2013

The Problem with Manhattan's Green Roofs

Green Roofs.

They're gorgeous, and they can actively help to combat global warming.  They're a good thing.

In 2007, NYC's Mayor Bloomberg launched PlaNYC.  The goal was to green up the city and make it more environmentally sustainable.  It has been extraordinarily successful:
"In just four years we’ve built hundreds of acres of new parkland while improving our existing parks. We’ve created or preserved more than 64,000 units of housing. We’ve built whole new neighborhoods with access to transit. We’ve provided New Yorkers with more transportation options. We’ve enacted the most ambitious laws of any city in the country to make existing buildings more energy-efficient.  And we’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions 13% below 2005 levels. Over 97% of the 127 initiatives in PlaNYC were launched within one-year of its release and almost two-thirds of its 2009 milestones were achieved or mostly achieved." (source)

There is one slight problem, however...

You see, the green roofs that have been set up in Manhattan aren't exactly doing the job that was expected of them.

So what's the problem? 

Well, it turns out that the majority of plants that dot the roofs are of the sedum variety.  Sedum is a stonecrop plant.  A succulent.  This should be good, of course, because they're low-water plants.

Unfortunately, sedum comes with a downside, as explained in Scientific American magazine:
"Sedum does not absorb water as efficiently as other plant species, according to Scott MacIvor, a PhD student in biology at York University in Toronto who studies bee and wasp habitats on green roofs there, and co-wrote the city’s new guidelines for biodiverse green roofs. At certain times of the year, he says sedum actually absorbs heat instead of reflecting it. “The problem is that sedum plants aren’t really performing on green roofs,” he notes. “They’re just there.” One of the plant’s biggest failings, it turns out, is that it does not encourage biodiversity of plant species on the roof. According to MacIvor’s research, green roofs provide the most benefit when they are planted with a diverse group of species that are adapted to local conditions."
Oops.

That's ok, though...  it can be fixed.  You know how I know that?  Because...



Krista McGuire is here to save the day!

Well, ok.  Maybe she doesn't wear a cape.  That's ok, though... I'm still happy to place her in my personal Superhero Hall of Fame.  See, she's an assistant professor of biology at Barnard University, and she knows oodles about fungal communities.

Why am I so excited about things like mushrooms?

Well, because fungus says a lot about an environment.  You can get a general idea about an ecological system simply by studying its fungal communities.  Naturally, she got her hands dirty and examined the fungus growth on the green roofs of New York.

And what did she find?
"Her study, published in PLoS ONE last April, found that green roofs have distinct fungal communities that help plants to thrive in harsh, polluted environments and filter heavy metals. On average, 109 different types of fungi were present on each roof including Pseudallescheria fimeti, a fungus that grows in polluted soils and human-dominated environments. Rooftop soil also contained fungi from the genusPeyronellaea, which live in the tissues of plants to help them take in nutrients." (Scientific American)
So what does that mean? 

In a nutshell, it means that we can use the information she gained to plant appropriate native species on the roof tops.  Appropriate species, after all, will do a much better job of combating pollution and urban heat. The specific types of fungal communities can be used as a guide to inform us which plants are best suited to each roof.

Awesome!!!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Trash-to-Energy: A Progressive Idea from Arizona

It's not often that you'll see me singing praises to Arizona.

From Sheriff Joe to the rejection of Chicano Studies courses, I spend more time cringing and even yelling about what the state does than anything else. (No offense to any of you reading this that are from Arizona... I have friends there, so I know that not everyone follows that mentality.)

You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that one city within the state of Arizona was doing something progressive and important.  Something that makes me smile.

What am I talking about?

Trash-to-energy.

Abengoa, an engineering company based in Spain, is looking to build a trash-to-energy plant in Glendale, AZ. 
"Chicago-based power company Vieste Energy will own the planned factory, and Abengoa will build it and run it for 30 years. Construction will take 20 months, and create 50 jobs, says Abengoa. When fully built, the factory is supposed to be able to gasify 180,000 tons of garbage per year, produce 350 tons of gas per day, and create 15 MW of electricity." (source)
Wow!

Those of you that know about the whole trash-to-energy thing are probably saying,

"So what?  We already have those in the U.S.  
Arizona is doing absolutely nothing new."

And you'd almost be right.  

There's a difference between this proposed plant and others in the United States, however.  The trash-to-energy plants in this country all convert organics into energy.  This one, though... This one converts plastic to energy, as well.

Score!

Imagine.  If the plans go through and this facility is built, they'll be converting  180,000 tons of garbage into gas per year.  They'll be creating jobs.  They'll be helping to solve a major environmental problem.

I'm not seeing anything negative in this.  Rather, I'm seeing something truly amazing.  What am I missing in this?

Am I missing anything... or is this just as wonderful as I think it is?



Information gathered via Washington Post

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What's On Your Plate? An Eco-system's Destruction, Perhaps.

We've all heard about how the fish on our plates may not be the fish we think they are.

To be honest, this didn't concern me much.  The Cajun salmon spread that I enjoy on my crackers is actually pollock?  No worries.  It still tastes good, so who really cares?  Well, my mind has just been changed.

Significantly.

See, I just finished watching the trailer for a documentary from New Zealand called The Last Ocean, directed by Peter Young:



Wow, right?

Ok, so what exactly did you just see a teaser for?

Well, in a nutshell, you're seeing the process of an eco-system's quiet destruction.  It's that simple.  How can destruction be quiet, you ask?

Because people don't know about it.  

Heck, most people don't even know that the Ross Sea even exists.  Don't be embarrassed if you're one of those people.  The fact of the matter is that most of us have never heard about it.  Why would we?  It's just a small section of sea off the coast of Antarctica, south of New Zealand.

Image via NIWA
So, why do I mention it, then?

Because commercial fishing is being done there.  Overfishing, to be specific.

But it gets worse.

This overfishing is destroying an entire eco-system, and it's being done to send Antarctic Toothfish to the tables of high end restaurants... many of them here in the United States.

Still not upsetting enough?  Ok, I'll turn it up another notch.

The fish is being sold as Chilean Sea Bass!!!

That's right.  An eco-system is being destroyed to feed the wealthy... and the wealthy, for the most part, don't even realize it.  Heck, they're not even eating what they think they are!

Can things get much worse?  Destruction, pollution, and lies... and they're all focused around an eco-system that is pristine and perfect.

Or was, at any rate.

Fishing at this rate in the waters of the Ross Sea will bring about the destruction of an eco-system.  The ships will pollute the waters, the loss of a species of fish will change the water's dynamics, and who knows how far the consequences could stretch?

But!

There is something we can do about it.  There's a campaign set up on Indiegogo for the Last Ocean Road Trip which collects contributions for the cause.
"The Last Ocean road trip will allow our team to continue the campaign to protect the Ross Sea by sending Peter to film screenings at the festivals listed below to give Q & A‘s and generate media interest. If funds allow, we'd like to hire a campaign camper van, sticker it up with hi-vis Last Ocean imagery, and bring other members of our team to join Peter at points along the way. The camper will create a natural focal point for people to gather and receive information about the Ross Sea issue. Between screenings the team will lobby supermarkets to stop selling Antarctic Toothfish caught in the Ross Sea and ask consumers to stop eating it. (Antarctic Toothfish is marketed as Chilean Sea bass throughout North America).  Then, if our second stretch goal is reached, Peter will head to Germany to hold special screenings ahead of the talks in Bremerhaven."
 Wait?  Bremerhaven?  Where in the heck is that?

It's in Germany.  

See, Bremerhaven is where the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources will be held in July.  It is hoped that the Ross Sea will become a Marine Protected Area.

Any contributions made on Indiegogo will help support this cause.

We have a chance to save an entire eco-system.  The question now, though, is

"Will we?"


Sunday, May 26, 2013

Decrease Stress Through Food (No, I Don't Mean Ice Cream and Chocolate)

Well, maybe a little chocolate... 

but only because the secret to eternal happiness is trapped inside a single piece of chocolate that's hiding in one container within one country somewhere in the world, and the only way you'll ever know the answer is to consume chocolate in hopes of finding that one piece.  

Really.


We all know that eating well and exercising regularly is great for our health.

We also know that exercise produces endorphins, and in the wise words of Elle Woods from Legally Blond:



It's all so very simple.

But!

We've all heard the the phrase, "You are what you eat."

Can diet effect mood?  

The answer on a very basic level is, of course, yes. The worse your health is, the worse you feel, physically.  If you're feeling sick or tired, your mood will obviously not be at its best.  This is obvious.

But what about specific foods?  Is it possible to decrease stress through incorporating specific foods into your diet?

According to sites ranging from WebMD to Better Homes and Gardens to Marie Claire, the answer appears to be yes.

They all seem to point to the same specific nutrients within foods:  B-complex vitamins, vitamin C, omega fatty acids, and zinc.  There are more, of course, but these are the major nutrients mentioned.

As far as specific foods are concerned, they all agree on...
  •  Almonds
  •  fatty fish
Yep.  That's all.

I guess everyone is doing their own spin on it, but there didn't appear to be a great deal certainty, here.  Indeed, some of the suggestions had me outright giggling.

WebMD, for example, recommended a bedtime snack.  This isn't exactly horrible, but a snack eaten too close to bedtime can cause heartburn.  That's not about to make my stress levels drop...

But that's not all.  They also mentioned simple carbs... complete with displaying a photo of a bunch of lollipops. 

Oh, WebMD...

But they're not alone.  Better Homes and Gardens recommends... corn flakes.

Seriously.

In their defense, they're really talking about nutrient fortified cereals, rather than corn flakes, specifically.  Their choice of example, however, is sorely lacking in forethought.  Perhaps they could have chosen an example with a higher fiber count, for example.

The point?  Low fiber breakfast cereals are highly processed, and not good for you - even if they are vitamin fortified.

Marie Claire, on the other hand...

Honestly, Marie Claire had the best, most healthy advice of the three, in my opinion.  This is actually pretty amazing, when you consider that I'm the last person that would ever buy their magazine at a newsstand.  There's nothing wrong with it, understand.  It's just not my number one choice of magazine. 

Or number 10, for that matter...

But their advice was good.  The piece's reasoning made sense, and not one food choice caused me to roll my eyes in frustration.  It's worth looking into.

The conclusion?
  • Almonds and fatty fish may help to decrease stress levels... everything else appears to be debatable.
  • If you don't like almonds or fatty fish, eat chocolate instead.  Because you need to find that one chocolate that holds the secret to eternal happiness. Just because.
I'll continue looking into this.  I'd like to believe, after all, that choosing appropriate foods can help reduce stress levels.





Friday, May 24, 2013

There are Green Oscars?

Did you know that something called the "Green Oscars" exists?

I didn't.

Well, it turns out that the Green Oscars have been around since 1994.  That's almost 20 years.

I felt pretty bad about not knowing it existed.  I mean... I write about this stuff!  I should know this, right?

But I didn't.

And if I didn't realize there was something called the Green Oscars, then maybe you didn't, either.  At least, that's what I'm telling myself.  It makes me feel better, so let's go with it.

What are the Green Oscars, you ask?

Well, it turns out that "Green Oscars" is actually more of a nickname for the Whitley Awards.  I'm not off the hook yet, though, because I have never heard of them, either. 

Oops.

The Whitley Fund is an organization registered in the UK that offers awards and grants to conservationists.  Not just any conservationists, though.  They have to be pretty awesome.

It's pretty huge, too, considering that
"The Whitley Awards Ceremony, hosted by our patron, HRH The Princess Royal, is held annually at the Royal Geographical Society, in the Spring."
 Well, it's spring, so that means...

http://whitleyaward.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/HRH-The-Princess-Royal-speaking-at-the-2013-Whitley-Awards-Ceremony.jpg

Her Royal Highness, Princess Anne was there to award 8 wonderful conservationists with funding that will help them continue doing what they love.

 The Gold went to Cagan Sekerciolgu of Turkey for his work in wetlands conservation.  It's not the first time he's won the award, either.  He received a joint gold award in 2008,  and then in 2010 and 2012 he was presented with continuation awards.  This, however, was the first time he was fully in the spotlight.

So what did Sekerciolgu do to finally gain his own Gold?

Oh, not a whole lot... except convincing the government of Turkey to create a wildlife corridor that extends around 82 km.

Seriously.  He did that.  That earns him major cool points, I think.

Aside from the fact that this corridor is a huge win for the environment as a whole, it's also a huge success in terms of wildlife conservation.  You see, this corridor will help protect different large mammals that are currently threatened by giving them more "safe" land to roam. 

Turkey hasn't exactly been a model country in terms of the environment, ranking 109 out of 132 countries in the World Environmental Performance Index,so this is a great step in the right direction.

The top Green Oscar went to a spectacular guy, I think.  I can't wait to see what he does next!

http://unews.utah.edu/wp-content/uploads/Sekercioglu_PrincessAnne.jpg
photo via U of Utah, Where Sekercioglu is currently  an assistant professor of biology






Thursday, May 23, 2013

Eat Your Potatoes!!! White Vegetables Are Important, Too.

Don't judge a vegetable by its color!

At least, that's what a round table discussion from Purdue says.  White vegetables like potatoes, it turns out, are just as important as their pretty green, orange and red counterparts.

That's right.  Those potatoes that people seem to think are bad for you due to their high starch content, are actually nutritional powerhouses. 



No, really!

The supplemental article published in Advances in Nutrition, White Vegetables: A Forgotten Source of Nutrients: Purdue Round Table Executive Summary, points out that white vegetables include important nutrients that the average American tends to fall short on, such as magnesium, fiber, and potassium, to name a few.

Not to mention protein.  

As it turns out,
"Potato biological value, depending on the cultivar, is between 90 and 100 and very similar to the biological value of a whole egg at 100 and higher than soybeans (84) and legumes (73). Thus, the protein quality of potatoes is higher than that of any other heavily consumed plant protein."
Who knew, right?

But it gets better.

That starch that everyone seems to fear?  It's resistant starch, which is another way of saying that it resists digestion.  That means that it acts in a capacity similar to fiber!  As it is, we don't eat enough foods that contain fiber.  That's why we have so many silly products like sweetener with fiber added into it.

Now add the fact that potatoes have up to 5.6 grams of soluble fiber per serving, as well, and things are looking pretty good!

You're probably wondering how potatoes can be so good for you if they're not brightly colored.

That's a legitimate question.  We're taught, after all, that brightly colored vegetables are more nutritional.

But here's the thing...
 " Many important nutrients, such as vitamin C, have no absorbance in the electromagnetic spectrum range visible to humans. Therefore, the human eye cannot judge directly the vitamin C content of a food. Other nutrients for which color is not an accurate measure include potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamin D were identified as nutrients of concern in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans due to low levels of intake (1)."
Well, whatdaya know?  

The bottom line in this study is simple:  Don't ignore white vegetables.  They're good for you, too.

There are a few things about this study, however, that concern me.  

This study feels like a thinly veiled attempt to push GMO acceptance onto society.  One thing that caused me to feel that way was the following sentence:
"However, the sulfur-containing amino acids (methionine and cysteine) are lower in potatoes than the other common staple crops, and scientists are currently developing transgenic forms of potatoes that have higher levels of the sulfur amino acids."
Specifically, that part about "transgenic forms of potatoes".  Research into genetic modification is also mentioned in the section on Nutritional and functional attributes of white vegetables, including technology applications.

Further, It should be pointed out that the authors are affiliated with the Purdue Department of Nutrition Science (Weaver is head of that department), which receives a minimum of $6000 per year from corporate affliates such as Cargill and Monsanto, to name a few.

I should also point out that the Alliance for Potato Research and Education placed a decent chunk of funding into this.  This has absolutely nothing to do with GMOs, to the best of my knowledge, but it does need to be pointed out, as it could have influenced the discussion findings.

My own thoughts?

Even though this article produces many questions for me, I think the basic, overall decision within it is pretty sound: 

White vegetables may not be the bad guys that people tend to think they are.  

More research needs to be done.

... And eat more vegetables.  Both colorful and white.  It can't hurt, after all, when you consider that we live in a society that consumes way too much meat.

Besides, potatoes are yummy!




Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Leonardo DiCaprio's 11th Hour Charity Auction

I've never been a very big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor.  

http://images.pictureshunt.com/pics/l/leonardo_dicaprio_titanic-13360.jpg
A little too 'cute' for me...


The first five years or so after he started catching people's attention with Titanic, I rolled my eyes whenever somebody got excited about a movie he starred in. 

"Big deal," 
I thought.  
"It's just another movie in which everyone gushes about his cuteness, 
and blah, blah, blah..."

His roles became more interesting to me around 2002, when he showed up in Gangs of New York.  Unfortunately, it was hard for me to shake the "cuteness" of his character in Titanic.  So I've never been a big fan of Leonardo DiCaprio, the actor.

Leonardo DiCaprio the philanthropist, on the other hand, is another story. 

The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is where he truly shines.  Take, for instance, his latest charity art auction at Christie's in New York, where he was able to raise

$33.3 million!!!

Dang.  Most of us don't even see that much in an entire lifetime, and yet he was able to raise that amount about a week ago in the foundation's 11th Hour Auction.

The 11th Hour, if you're not familiar with the documentary by that title (Narrated by DiCaprio), refers to the last moment in which we can get off of our butts and do something to fix the behaviors that are changing our climate.

Leonardo DiCaprio spoke at the 11th Hour auction, emphasizing the importance of action.
“Despite the significant efforts of organisations and individuals all over the world, our modern way of life has caused unprecedented devastation to our oceans, our forests and our wildlife,” he said, urging buyers to “bid as if the fate of the planet depends on us.”
“We are at the 11th hour, we are facing a tipping point of environmental crisis unprecedented in human history,” he said. (source)
And what happened?

The 11th Hour auction brought in far more money than pre-sale estimates assumed would be collected.

Like... 
                        double 
                                                      the amount.

Holy Crap!

Yeah, so... about not being a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio? 


http://www.nation.com.pk/print_images/670/2013-05-15/dicaprio-art-auction-tops-38-million-1368569079-5387.jpg
Meow!

I may have changed my mind.



***By the way... if you haven't seen The 11th Hour yet, you can catch it online for free at Films For Action.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Earl: A Sexy, Solar Powered Android Device

I'm in love with yet another piece of technology.  

http://www.damngeeky.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Earl-tablet-solar-powered_2.jpg
Oh, la la!!!


It was designed for the type of person that gets dirty, climbs mountains, swims through rough currents, and wrestles antelopes in muddy swamps infested with man-eating alligators that are over 30 feet long!

Well, ok.  Maybe that's not quite what it was designed for... but it's still pretty cool!

Earl.  

::commence swooning::


Earl is tough and rugged.  Earl enjoys spending large amounts of time in the sun.  Earl is gorgeous.

No, I'm not talking about the person this device was designed for, nor am I talking about a mountain man from a Harlequin novel.  I'm talking about an Android device.

THE android device for back-country outdoorsy geeks like me.  And like you, too, perhaps.  So let me tell you about this sexy device that everybody should be swooning over.

Earl is a renaissance man.  

It's a fantistic combination of GPS, weather alert system, and two-way radio.  It also has an e-ink screen, which means it's easy to read in the glaring sun.  AND... it uses the Android 4.1 OS.

Earl can hold his breath for over thirty minutes.

In a manner of speaking, anyway...  Earl is mud, shock, and water proof up to three feet.  Slogging through a river to get to the other side?  No problem.  all out of your kayak?  No big deal.  Earl understands, and he'll be right there beside you.

And did I mention that Earl is perfectly happy to carry your favorite books for you?

This device supports pdf, mobi and epub files, which are pretty much the only file types that matter when it comes to reading.  In my opinion, at least.  Seriously... have you ever tried reading a book that's been saved to a txt file?  Ugh...

Other features?

  • It's solar powered.  Yep.  Place that sexy tablet in the sun for 5 hours and you have a fully charged tablet.  Score!
  • It comes pre-loaded with topo maps.  Meow!
  • Earl can even measure your heart rate.  Oh, be still my heart!
Still swooning over here...

 So why don't I already have one?

Well, sadly, it's still in the crowdfunding stage... so nobody has one, yet.  You can, however, order one for $249 until June 9th.   

Unfortunately, it's reliable from 0-50 degrees celsius, which would be great if I still lived in the desert Southwest, but isn't so great for doing crazy stuff in the snow up in Minnesota.

Drat.

That's ok, though... I'll still dream of holding this sexy solar powered device in my hands. 


 







Friday, May 17, 2013

Water trapped in Rock? Get Ready for a Stream of Discoveries!

 Water we talking about?



We're talking about water trapped within rock that was discovered by some gold miners in Canada.  Really, really old water.  Water that may have microorganisms within it that evolved separately from everything on the surface.

Geochemistry ROCKS!

Ok, enough with the puns...  you get my point.  This is so awesome!!!

Here's the thing:  

There has been water found within rocks that has been trapped for tens of millions of years.  That's nothing new.  This water, however, is really exciting.  See, it's older.  A lot older. 

A team of geochemists visited Timmins, Ontario and made some interesting findings.
 "To date the water, the team used three lines of evidence, all based on the relative abundances of various isotopes of noble gases present in the water. The authors determined that the fluid could not have contacted Earth's atmosphere — and so been at the planet's surface — for at least 1 billion years, and possibly for as long as 2.64 billion years, not long after the rocks it flows through formed." (Nature.com, May 15, 2013)

Pete Burnard, one of the scientists at the site, described the isotopic compositions within the collected samples as "extremely strange."  This begs the question of, "What's so strange about it?"

Well, according to geochemist Chris Ballentine, 
"The findings are “doubly interesting”, Ballentine says, because the fluid carries the ingredients necessary to support life. The isolated water supply, he says, provides “secluded biomes, ecosystems, in which life, you can speculate, might have even originated”. His colleagues are now working to establish whether the water does harbour life."
 That's just... awesome. Imagine having the responsibility, no, the opportunity, to study something so complex and amazing.  So different.  This is truly fantastic.

Could that ancient water hold bacteria that could potentially cure a chronic disease?  Could it hold bacteria that could infect us all with an ailment that we've never before come into contact with?

Or could it hold no life at all?

This water, it seems, holds more questions than answers, right now.  I look forward to future findings.  How about you?

Source: Nature.com

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Nature and ART: What the Environment Does For Our Minds

After writing about how the natural environment is beneficial toward creativity, I went on a very focused mission toward finding out more about what nature can do for the brain. 

I mean, everyone reading this knows that nature has a profound effect on people, but generalized knowledge and focused knowledge are at totally opposite ends of the spectrum.  I wanted something that would grip me.  Something that would make me say,

"ooooOOOOOOOoo!"

and

"Ah!!!"

And so...  I did.  I found it.

It's called ART.

No, really.  That's what it's called.  I swear.

Painter wearing a beret, standing at an easel with a pallet and a brush dripping red paint.
No, not that kind of ART.

ART stands for Attention Restoration Theory.  What does that mean, then?
Attention Restoration Theory is exactly what it sounds like.  

It's the theory that nature has the ability to restore the mind.  It can increase focus, relaxation, positive thoughts, etc.  It's not just something talked about in alternative healing circles.  It has actually been studied pretty extensively throughout the globe.

For example, in Finland it was discovered that restorative experiences were more frequent in favored natural environments in urban areas (such as parks) than they were in favored built structures (such as gyms).  It was also discovered that people with higher stress levels visited their favored places less than those with lower stress levels.

Spectacular reason to go outdoors, I think!

In a research report from the University of Michigan entitled, The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature, it was concluded that walking through nature, or even just viewing nature in photos, had the ability to improve cognitive functioning. 

Be aware, however, that the two experiments the Michigan report spoke about were extremely small, so in reality, all we have is a very good reason to want more research done on the subject. 

So, why the heck aren't more researchers looking into this?

Well, I think the first statement in the University of Michigan report introduction sums up the answer pretty well:
"Imagine a therapy that had no known side effects, was readily
available, and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost."
Specifically, the words zero cost.

Pharmaceutical companies sell drugs. Imagine those drugs no longer being needed by some of  the people that currently use them.  Now think about how much money the drug companies wouldn't be getting.

Now consider how much research is funded by pharmaceutical companies.

I think you know where I'm going here...

Get the word out.  

Nature is good for bodies and minds. More than that, though, nature is necessary.

Take it from the lady that went off to play a baseball inspired game using a gigantic branch and a bunch of pinecones.

Nature makes a huge difference in our overall mental processes.  Spending time within the natural  environment is essential to a healthy mind.

Now go create some ART!



Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Nature and the Brain: Creativity

To quote directly from the book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv,
"Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Given a chance, a child will bring the confusion of the world to the woods, wash it in the creek, turn it over to see what lives on the unseen side of that confusion."
I agree, and I think it goes a lot further than just children.

Going off and spending time away from the structured, fast paced rigidity of the city can make a person feel more alive. 

As you look through the trees ahead of you, the imagination takes over.

Sometimes that can be scary.  You begin to realize how small you are.  You see that the world is so much bigger than you dreamed, and you know nothing about what you'll find if you go farther inside that forest.  You realize that if you get lost you may never again be found.



At other times, that same group of trees makes you feel stronger than ever before.  You recognize that you're part of something bigger than yourself:  Something that shrugs off your mistakes, allowing you to try again and again, until you succeed. 



No judgement.

Indeed, Dr. Paula Stewart, guest speaker at Let's GOGO! (Get Out into the Great Outdoors) on March 22nd, in Ontario talked about this very same subject, agreeing with Louv, calling him incredibly inspiring.
" According to Louv, nature enhances the senses and increases awareness of the body in time and space.

"Our brains are hard wired to pick up everything in nature," said Stewart, "and this actually makes our senses (hearing, touch, sight, smell and taste) come more alive."

When in nature, there is a feeling of being connected to something, and moreover, the environment directly affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This region has been associated in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior.

"Our prefrontal cortex is designed to understand that being in nature is a safe thing," said Stewart.

Nature also affects the limbic system, which is the feeling part of the brain, controlling our emotions.

Stewart explained the earth's trees and plants release chemical compounds into the air that people breathe. These compounds have a profound affect on the human body.

"The Boreal Forest of Canada releases prostaglandins, which decrease your blood pressure and enhance your immune system," she said, "and a pine forest releases pinene, which acts like an anesthetic."

For young people with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the pinene helps anesthetize and calm the brain. Therefore, children learn better and are not as anxious and hyperactive." (source)
That goes for adults, too.  No, Dr. Stewart didn't say that. That's totally me.

Why?

Because I made a sudden, surprise trip up North to visit my mom for Mother's Day.  I got back yesterday.  My sisters and I all went up there, so we had to find something to do together, of course. 

This particular area has no cell signal.  They can't even get cable internet.  It's dial-up (gasp!) or satellite for them!

So we went outside to play.

And we created an entire game, loosely based on baseball.

It began with my sisters finding a gigantic, heavy branch that had been slightly carved at one end to resemble a bat.  They picked up some pine cones and used them as balls.

We got more.

And more.

We needed a basket to hold them all.





We now had an ample supply of pine cones to throw to the batter, whose bat was much heavier than anything you'd ever see at the World Series. This was great!


That is, it was great until we realized that throwing one pine cone at a time was just way too easy.  We elected to have two pitchers... at the same time.

But then... we got used to that, too.  We had to make this game even better.


So we added a hula hoop.





One you managed to hit a pine cone, you had to run to first base...

...with that hula hoop around your ankle.

To get to second base, you had to run backwards.

And for third base... 

...well, I actually don't remember what we were supposed to do to get to third base... but I think that's probably because nobody actually got that far.

We had a great time, grabbing anybody else that managed to get too close to our game, and making them take a swing at the pine cones, as well (with three pitchers, instead of two, because as we all know, more is better!). 

Age range?  Mid-twenties to late fifties. Every adult played!

Stress melted away, we came up with even more grand ideas to add to future games, we laughed throughout the majority of the time we spent outdoors, and by the end we all knew we would sleep well.

We made a great team.


Take a chance.  Go off into nature with a few people and just let yourselves come up with fun ways to spend your time.  Use what you find, quit worrying about maturity, and have fun.

Let nature help your brain ease into creativity!













Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy Mother's Day From the Insect World!

Happy Mother's Day to all of you mothers out there!

Today's post is a super-short one, since Mother's Day is the one day that I get to sit back, read a book, and watch everybody else do everything for me.

Ahahahaha!  

I made a funny!

Seriously, though... I hear that if you believe something with all your heart, you can make it happen.  I, therefore, am going to spend the day believing that my husband and daughter love cleaning the house, cooking, and folding laundry.

Cross your fingers for me!

Of course, I don't want to leave you with nothing, so here's an interesting tidbit for you from the insect world:

Unlike most bugs, the European earwig is a pretty fantastic mother.  

 Really, she is!

From the moment that she builds a nest and lays her eggs, she watches over her young.  If her clutch is disturbed, she'll scoop them up move them to a new location, keeping them safe from harm.  She actively protects them, and even chews their food and pukes it back up for them when they're first born.

http://www.earthtimes.org/newsimage/earwig-mothers-parental-care_1_25412.jpg
Awww... How sweet is that?


Even in the insect world, there are mothers that go the extra mile for their children.

So have a great Mother's Day, for those of you out there that are mothers, and for the rest of you... 

Go clean the house and fold clothes for your mother, out of thankfulness that she didn't chew your food, then puke it back up for you.

Friday, May 10, 2013

More Mind-Blowing Robots Based on Nature

Have you ever noticed how similar things (topics, events, etc.) all seem to fall into your lap at the same time?  Sometimes this is a good thing, sometimes it's bad, and sometimes it's just really freaking mind-blowing.

I like the mind-blowing ones the best, personally.

Well, yesterday we discussed robotic insects, which really make me nervous.  I recognize their beauty, as well as their coolness, but I can't shake the worries about the future that race through my mind.

So, naturally...

More animalistic robots showed up on my monitor when I turned on the computer again, later. 

How'd that happen?  Well, I have an NPR gadget on my desktop.  On that desktop, the words Wildlife That Isn't Wild and Isn't Alive caught my attention.  Well, rather, those words screamed for my attention at almost the same mind numbing levels as used by the ultra awesome super villian known as the Silver Banshee.

image of Silver Banshee via http://static.comicvine.com/uploads/original/7/75086/1715606-silver_banshee.jpg


It's a good thing NPR uses it's powers for good, rather than evil, right?

The article, written by Robert Krulwich, talks about robots based on biology that I wouldn't have learned about, otherwise.  He begins by talking about a cargo carrying robot that's currently in a two-year test phase for DOD use.

The thing resembles one of those mechanical bulls that you see in the movies, and possibly at rodeos... I don't know about that rodeo part, though, since I've never been inclined to find a gigantic contraption to get myself thrown from.

This robotic rodeo toy was basically designed to carry supplies.  

Unlike the aforementioned mechanical bull, however, it doesn't start bucking and scattering items to the wind... although that'd be fun to watch!  Rather, the robot appears quite clunky and slow.  It does have the ability to navigate around obstacles, however, so I have to give it some credit.

Here's a video of it that I found on the Boston Dynamics site.  You guessed it - they're the designers. 



As if that's not enough, Krulwich succeeded in pointing me toward yet another robot whose design is based on nature.

Meet Salamandra Robotica.

http://biorob.epfl.ch/files/content/sites/biorob/files/shared/IMG_8632.jpg
She was designed at the Biorobotics Laboratory in Switzerland's École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne.  She's an amphibious robot. Salamandra, that beauty, can walk and swim. 

Her purpose? It's actually twofold.
"The primary purpose of this robot is to serve as a scientific tool to test hypotheses about the neural circuits underlying locomotion in the spinal cord of vertebrate animals."
and
 "A second purpose of the robot is to pave the way for amphibious service robots that could be used for inspection tasks or for search-and-rescue missions (e.g. after an earthquake, flood, or mudslide)."  (source)
 I have to admit it...

I'm kind of in love with her.  I mean, I gave a robot a gender!  There's got to be some sort of infatuation if I'm doing that, right?

The thing is, she moves perfectly.  She's a beautiful, realistic, and dare I say elegant?

And right about now you're probably wondering why I'm not attaching a video like I did with RodeoBot, right?

Because I want you to go to the NPR piece I originally mentioned, written by Krulwich.  He has a video attached that you can watch - complete with music.  I want you to read what he has to say about all of this.

Because he brings up some questions about these robots at the end that are worth asking ourselves.

Because he worries.

Because we all should.

Besides...  I really want you to see that video so you can understand what caused me to become seduced by a piece of technology that so closely resembles nature.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Robotic Insects for Pollination?

The other day a friend brought some new technology to my attention.  He sent me a link to an article in Truthdig, entitled, Here's What a 'Bee Drone' Will Look Like

Huh?

I had to look into this, of course.

It was actually a very short piece.  It mentioned a coin sized robot with the ability to fly.  This robot was developed at Harvard.School of Engineering and Applied Science.  There was also a short (1:42) video attached to the piece.

There was one thing in particular within the piece that caught my eye.  It mentions that The Guardian mused that scientists were imagining pollination or even military surveillance being accomplished by these tiny robotic bees.

image from http://scitechdaily.com/images/Robotic-RoboBees-Achieve-Flight.jpg


This isn't a civil rights blog, so I'm not touching on the surveillance part.  I'll let your imaginations do the work for you.  Instead, I want to focus on the pollination part.

It scared the heck out of me.

Now, understand that I've found absolutely nothing that points to any of the scientists that created the device having this sort of mindset.  Indeed, they have the sort of refreshing, childlike excitement about the achievement that makes me adore them from afar.

After reading the story about these robotic insects that was printed in the Harvard Gazette, I realized that the Harvard project came from a yearning to combine what we know about biology with technology to create an extraordinarily efficient robot in small scale.  The team wanted to work with the natural order, rather than against it.

Indeed, the team views the robotic insects as similar to flies, rather than bees:
“Flies perform some of the most amazing aerobatics in nature using only tiny brains,” notes co-author Sawyer B. Fuller, a postdoctoral researcher on Wood’s team who essentially studies how fruit flies cope with windy days. “Their capabilities exceed what we can do with our robot, so we would like to understand their biology better and apply it to our own work.” (source)
So, then, why was I so scared?

Well, technology can be beautiful... but it can also be dangerous.  Many times, it can be a way to place a bandage over a problem, rather than a way to heal it. 

The robotic insects themselves are spectacular, brilliant even. This project is a merger of science and engineering at its finest, and I hold the highest respect for everyone that made this a reality.

But they're not who I'm worried about.

Colony Collapse Disorder is at a record high - bees are dying at overwhelmingly high rates.  This needs to end, and fast. 

(Here comes the pollination fear I mentioned earlier.)

How many politicians will look at this beautiful achievement in robotics and say,

"Heck, let's just put some funds into making more of these to pollinate our fields?  
Then we won't have to worry about saving the bees!  
We have the answer right here!"

failing to recognize that their bandage solution won't solve anything?

I think the answer to that is far more than we want to believe would think this way. 

As a society, we like throwing technology at our problems.  We drive distances that we could easily walk.  We place children in front of televisions so that we can get work done without interruption.  We use gas or electric lawn mowers on tiny backyards.

We can easily ignore the plight of the bees and try to use robotic insects in their place.

Do the scientists and engineers that worked on this project think this way?  I highly doubt it.  In fact, I imagine that they'd be 100% against it... because they'd know better.

But since when does the average politician listen to scientists?  

It's because of politics that I look at a brilliant step forward in technology, and worry about the outcome.  It's because of bureaucracy that I look at something glorious and become unsettled.

It should never feel this way.


Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Lesson on Life from the Plants: Reach!

It warmed up.

Then it snowed.

Again, it warmed up, and again... it snowed.

Now it's warm again.  

Truly, it's enough to make anyone's head spin.  That's what happened to mine.  Well, ok... my head spins when just about anything halfway interesting happens,


Speech bubbles surrounding a cloud: "This cloud kinda looks like a sheep... sitting up on its butt... reaching into the sky.  Wow!" "Yeah, kind of... I guess..." "I'm totally blogging about this.  Awesome!!!" Thought bubble: "Oh, dear..."


But this time was different.  We had gone through several large differences in weather at a time when things should just be warming up.  I therefore took advantage of the warming period yesterday, and took a walk.

The cold weather can be horribly frustrating, but if you allow yourself a brief walk you notice that even immediately after a major snowfall, nature strives to get back into balance. 

At least, that's what the hostas planted last spring told me as they thrust from the soil, awakening from their dormancy. The tiny plants barely poked through the topsoil, green and strong.

tiny hosta sprouts poking through the soil
I know... they're tiny.  Don't worry, though!  They'll grow!
The tiger lilies were reaching toward the sun with even more desire,

Lily leaves bursting through the soil in a perfect line.





And...

...the bushes beside the drugstore decided to skip that whole leaf growing part, and just push out a bunch of glorious blossoms!

A bush filled with white blossoms... and no leaves
Anyone know what these are? They're gorgeous!
The way I see it, if these tiny plants can reach toward the sun and produce such magnificence so soon after a major load of snow plopped down onto them, I can do the same.

We all can.

We just have to take a moment to disconnect from our day-to-day struggles and just relax and take it all in.  Reach out to what makes us strong -

just like these plants.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Glyphosate: Gateway to Disease?

A few days ago, I began seeing a link to a study floating from wall to wall, particularly amongst pro-organic groups. 

The study, published in Entropy, which is an open access journal,  was about glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.

The study is entitled Glyphosate's Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases, and is authored by Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff.

Translation of Title For Those of Us That Don't Speak BioChem 

Glyphosate's Ability to Keep Our Bodies from Eliminating 
Drugs and Toxins

Well, that's my translation, anyway, and if you look up what exactly Cytochrome P450 is, you can understand why I came to that conclusion.

We all know that herbicide and pesticide chemical residue remains on the fruits and vegetables we buy at the grocery store.  This, along with bacteria is the reason we wash our produce before consuming it.

But many times, produce isn't washed well.  Even worse, the residue can be found in pre-washed and pre-packaged foods!

Yikes!

This study shows that glyphosate has the ability to interfere with Cytochrome P450, which means that it effectively ensures that other foreign chemicals zooming through our body don't get broken down and voided. Glyphosate seems to be actively enhancing those toxins' ability to produce negative health effects.

Wowsers!

This occurs at a slow rate, rather than having an immediate noticeable effect. The effects?  Well, according to the authors,
"Consequences are most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease." (via the study's abstract, p. 1)
 Talk about a great argument for eating organic!  

I strongly advise reading the full study by clicking on the study's title link, above. I've given you a very basic overview, but it's up to you to read and understand the original study.

The authors recommend that more studies be done, since this isn't something that's been widely studied - we need more.  But they also conclude that
"Glyphosate is likely to be pervasive in our food supply, and,contrary to being essentially nontoxic,it may in fact be the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment." (study conclusion, p. 30)
 I've believed this for a while, so I have to admit that I'm very biased here, but I'm also relieved.  It shows me that my nervousness about pesticides and herbicides is not unwarranted. 



Friday, May 3, 2013

Yard Sale Fiasco

Garage and yard sales are an excellent source of extra money, as well as a great way to ensure items around your home get a second life.



Unfortunately, sometimes they don't work out as well as you hope.

Last weekend, I had a yard sale.  I placed signs at intersections, complete with huge arrows pointing in the direction of the sale, yet I ended up with a grand profit of

18 dollars and a sunburn.

Yep.  That's how horribly my 2 day yard sale turned out.  As you can imagine, I was crushed.

I examined the outcome, and paid close attention to what may have went wrong.  See, the items and their setup were just fine.  Every person that showed up bought something... except for one man, but he was weird (like, really creepy-guy-is-hoping-I'm-doing-something-wrong weird), so I figure he doesn't count... except that he makes for a really interesting memory.

So what went wrong?  

Well, the problems had to do with drawing people to the yard sale.  I've created a list for myself, and I'm sharing it with you so that I can help keep you from making my same mistakes.
  • Placing signs at four intersections isn't enough.  One woman I talked to said that she places around sixteen signs, which probably means eight intersections... double what I did.
  • Signs should be neon or brightly colored.
  • Make sure the words are big enough for people to recognize.  I thought mine were... until I went to collect them all and discovered that while I could see the arrow on each sign very clearly, the words "Yard Sale" weren't bold enough - they weren't easy to read at all.  People had to slow down to read them.
Not everyone will have this same problem, of course.  In my case, nobody drives down my street.  It's a very quiet area.  This is normally wonderful, but on garage sale days, well...

Not so wonderful.  Drawing traffic can be rather difficult.  

There was also another yard sale about two blocks away... on the corner of a much busier street.  People naturally saw my signs and believed they belonged to that house.

So my timing was bad, as well.

One of the things I noticed, though, was that the majority of what people bought was books.  I have tons of books.

Oodles of them.

I won't be able to fit them all into our next home, so perhaps I can have a Used Book Sale next time.

It would be an unusual yard sale concept, that's for sure!



Thursday, May 2, 2013

Winter Storm Achilles: Damage Via Snow

 Achilles.

That's the winter storm that is hitting the Midwest, right now.

The plan today was to tell you about how excited I was because I managed to successfully overwinter my daughter's strawberry garden.

Yay for Super-me!!!

Stick drawing of a female superhero in a red cape.


Unfortunately, last night Mother Nature decided to plop a wee bit of snow on top of them.

Earthbox with 5 inches of snow piled on top

Ok... maybe a lot.

Fortunately, I had a heads-up, and so I was able to take most of my plants back inside.  The cucumbers, tomatillos, and strawberries were a bit too large to bring inside, though, so I just covered them and hoped for the best.  We'll see how that goes.

The snow was pretty thick and heavy.  This means that yet again I had a yard full of dead, fallen branches.  This time, though, there were more of them.

Yet again, there were branches covering the treacherous trail up the hill,


large branch fallen across a trail leading up a hill




But this time there were several that had fallen from the huge maple at the front corner of the driveway...

Fallen Branches covering a section of driveway.
and an entire pussy willow even managed to take a nosedive at some point before I woke up, this morning.

Fallen pussy willow, circled in red.  Red arrow pointing to it from words reading "My Poor Pussy Willow..."
Poor thing...

So I think it's safe to say that it was a pretty intense storm that traveled over Southern Minnesota (as well as Iowa and Wisconsin, last night... and it's still blowing!  Kansas City should see it tomorrow.

Yikes!

There are great video reports on weather.com that deal with it. We were actually pretty lucky.  Just 18 miles away, in Owatonna, 15 inches of snow fell.

Dang!

I puzzled over how this could be called a winter storm.  I mean, this is spring, right?

Somehow, I think Minnesota didn't get the memo.

I went out to shovel the five-ish inches of snow that we got, but didn't get very far.  See, the temperatures got a bit warmer, which means that snow was beginning to fall from trees at a pretty fast rate, and in large amounts. 

Not a big deal... at least, not until I looked up and saw that the power lines above me were overloaded with snow.

Three snow covered power lines.  Snow thickness of about 3 inches.

I moved pretty quickly, and was glad I did, because moments later the snow all fell at once, and the power lines resembled a few jump ropes being swung about 'double dutch' style.  They didn't snap, thank goodness, but they could have.

Since this is Winter Storm Achilles, I'm trying to figure out where its heel is... 

What's the weather like in your area?